Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Where Big Ben Started

Whitechapel Bell Foundry
••• Whitechapel Bell Foundry. © Oli Scarff / Getty Images

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry made the Big Ben bell for the Houses of Parliament and the original Liberty Bell. They have a free museum you can visit on weekdays to find out more.

About Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Whitechapel Bell Foundry is Britain's oldest manufacturing company as it was established in 1570, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. They still produce bells and fittings and have a shop, next to the foyer museum, with some hand bells, music and other merchandising.

They use many traditional skills alongside modern technology and you can walk around the side of the building and see the foundry in action. There are weekend Foundry Tours but they are incredibly popular and you may well have to book up to a year in advance.

I've been on a foundry tour and can recommend it. I booked six months in advance when the following year's tour dates were released so this does require some forward planning. The Foundry Manager took a group of about 30 people around the buildings and explained the manufacturing processes in an informative yet witty style. ("I employ three men to make mud pies and two men to make sand castles".)

I found out why industrial manufacturing industries were always on the east of cities: because of the prevailing wind from the west keeping the smells out of the city, and I was surprised to discover there are no molds and every bell is therefore unique.

The specialist workforce at the foundry have unusual jobs and many stay for their whole working life. The foundry motto is: "Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself."

Famous Bells

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry has produced bells for many churches and cathedrals around the world but the most famous two bells I associate them with are the original Liberty Bell from 1752 and Big Ben which was cast in 1858 and the bells of the Great Clock of Westminster first rang on 31 May 1859.

Two months later the bell cracked as it was being hit was a hammer that was too heavy. The hammer was changed and the crack is still there and has not worsened over the years so all is good.

Big Ben is the hour bell in the middle and there are quarter bells too. Big Ben's official name is the Great Bell but nobody calls it that.

Big Ben is still the biggest bell they have ever made. Today, their business is 75% church and tower bells and almost 25% hand bells. Bells are not cheap but they are made to last and should be maintenance free for 150 years and should last 1000 years.

The Museum

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry's museum is in their foyer, is open on weekdays and is free to visit. I found the staff very welcoming. They were willing to explain more about the exhibits and were happy for me to stroll around on my own too.

There are newspaper clippings, video footage, paper records, honors and awards, so lots to see. Do look for the full-size Big Ben bell template over the doorway on the inside. Wow, it's big!

Visitor Information

Address: 32/34 Whitechapel Road, London E1 1DY

Tel: 020 7247 2599

Museum Opening Hours: Monday to Friday, 9 am - 4.15 pm

Official Website: www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk